The (biosynthetic) gift of sight
Linköping – In the first clinical study of its kind, Swedish researchers have proven that biosynthetic corneas can offer a real alternative to rare human replacement corneas. In a process developed by Per Fagerholm and May Griffith from the University of Linköping, the biosynthetic corneas restored eyesight in 6 out of 10 patients in the 24 month follow-up, and had improved vision in all of the volunteers participating in the Phase I study. “Pre-implantation, the patients could only read the first row of letters on our chart,” said Fagerholm. “After implantation, they could read the second line. And with contact lenses, they could recognize the letters in the third line. That’s good enough to get a driving license in Sweden.” Although made from human collagen, the corneas did not lead to transplant rejection, as donor corneas do. “Normally when human donor corneas are implanted, drugs – including immunosuppressants – are given for 6-12 months to ward off infections,” said Griffith. “Using biosynthetic corneas, we phased out steroids after seven weeks, after the post-operative inflammation had receded.” While visual improvement was less than that of patients who received donor corneas, nerves regenerated in 90% of the patients – much better than with allogenic implants.
Fagerholm believes that his collagen corneas offer an alternative for replacement corneas because they induce regeneration. “With special microscopes, we saw that the patient’s cells enter the collagen matrix,” he explained. “Unlike with donor corneas, the new cornea that grew on our biosynthetic scaffold is therefore completely made from the patient’s own cells.” Lagerholm sees huge potential for his technique. Worldwide, 1.5 million people with corneal damage or disease go blind annually because they can’t find a suitable donor cornea.